Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the ways in which—and locations where—people work have changed. Given the concern over an unknown virus and its communicability, people grabbed their laptops and maybe some office supplies, and “moved” home to set up offices and workstations. Businesses and employees had no choice but to adapt to what was, for most, an unfamiliar work-from-home (WFH) arrangement.
This new WFH paradigm has come with its advantages:
- A sense of freedom and empowerment among employees;
- The opportunity for employees to set up home offices that may better facilitate productivity and creativity;
- Greater flexibility in setting a work schedule, which allows for better work-life balance and the ability to enjoy activities like taking kids to school, exercising, or running errands—as long as you continue to get your work done;
- No time-consuming commute to and from the office;
- Most workers prefer not to be micromanaged, and most studies show workers are more productive in the absence of micromanagement;
- Savings on items like transportation, professional clothes, and lunches out while working in an office;
- Increased ability to focus and concentrate on work without the distractions of an office;
- Women and workers of color have reported much greater satisfaction due to freedom from the microaggressions that persist in a normal office environment;
- Less overhead for businesses not trapped in a lease or mortgage for office space; and
- Fewer health risks since there is less exposure to others.
However, there are potential drawbacks to WFH as well:
- The cost of setting up a home office;
- Diminished productivity if you do not follow a set schedule;
- Further blurred lines between home and work make balance more difficult for some;
- Businesses trapped in leases or mortgages on empty offices bleeding money;
- Decreased accountability since there is no one looking over your shoulder;
- Alternatively, businesses and managers that insist on accountability software have in some cases created far more invasive and pervasive micromanagement than is possible in a normal office environment;
- The lack of immediacy in responses from coworkers or supervisors—and related delays in getting work done—because we all know it’s easier to ignore emails and phone calls than it is to disregard someone physically stopping by your workspace;
- A supercharged expectation of perpetual availability via phone, Slack, or email;
- The tendency to get distracted with items or tasks around the house;
- The absence of social interactions, collaboration, team-building activities, and hands-on mentorship or guidance; and
- Feelings of isolation that can have severe negative impacts on mental and even physical health.
There is no single or correct answer for where people should work. Companies are developing their own post-pandemic workplace strategies. Some have found that WFH experiences have been so positive that they’ve chosen to go fully remote. Others are requiring that workers return to the office, whether full-time or by adopting a hybrid approach, with several days a week at home and several days a week in the office. Hubble, (2022, August 4), The Official List of Every Company’s Back-to-Office Strategy, https://hubblehq.com/blog/famous-companies-workplace-strategies.
So, what should you do if or when your employer requires at least some time—if not 40 or more hours a week—in the office?
- Follow the lead of top decision-makers and human resources personnel in your office. If they feel that a return to work is safe and in the best interest of the organization, and if they’ve addressed questions and concerns you have, then returning to the office probably makes good sense.
- Return gradually, not all at once. Re-acclimation to an office full of people may take some time.
- Monitor your anxiety. Recognize that you—and likely, others—are going to need to readjust to sharing space, working with others, and socializing with others.
- Be aware of and show concern for others. Realize that working alone and being isolated might have been difficult for some people. Perhaps there are psychological side effects or maybe introversion tendencies have set in after being alone for so long.
- Continue to take precautions. Wash your hands regularly. Keep your work area clean and sanitized. Socially distance or wear a mask if that’s what makes you comfortable.
- Be sure to maintain the work-life balance that likely improved when you didn’t have such a rigid work schedule and when you didn’t have to contend with frustrations like the daily commute.
- Take time to make sure returning to the office is the right decision for you. With vaccines and general immunity improving, it seems that COVID is not as dangerous or contagious as it was two years ago. However, there still are risks in resuming in-person experiences with others, so make sure you are prepared before you jump back into the workplace.
- If you simply cannot handle all the mental, physical, and emotional strain that being in the office may cause you, speak with your employer about the possibility of reducing your in-office time or going WFH full-time. Only 4% of employers are requiring all employees to return to the workplace full-time, and 90% of employers allow hybrid work schedules. McGregor, J. (2022, May 5). Just 4% Of Employees Are Making Everyone Return To The Office Full-Time, Survey Finds. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenamcgregor/2022/05/05/just-4-of-employers-are-making-everyone-return-to-the-office-full-time-survey-finds/?sh=329ee752e1a2. So your employer should be willing to allow some flexibility.
- If your employer insists on a return policy that is completely at odds with the way you wish to work, this is an excellent reason to look for a new position. Whether you want to be at home, hybrid, or in the office, there are employers out there whose policy matches your preference. Vault’s survey, among other resources, tracks the return-to-work policy of the employers we profile, so check what an organization’s policy is before you apply and use your interview to nail down the details.
There is no doubt that COVID has impacted how we live, and absolutely it has impacted how we work. We probably will never return to pre-pandemic ways when most work was done in physical office structures filled with employees. If your employer is calling back into the office, make sure that you are prepared, both physically and mentally, to return to an office environment. And be prepared, too, to have a conversation with your employer if you find that WFH is the best option for you.
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